“The store exists because of the largesse of people who support it,” said Eric Whittington, proprietor of Glen Park’s Bird & Beckett’s Books and Records. Over 300 nights a year, the store also books top flight jazz players, poets and other musicians to perform — an exceptional practice for a small independent bookstore.
“A couple of days ago, we had Matt Renzi (saxophone) with Erik Jekabson (trumpet), Peter Barshay on bass and Hamir Atwal on drums, “ said Whittington who nightly transforms his shop into an atmospheric listening room.
“The audiences like the proximity to the musicians and mingling on the break, and the neighborhood loves that this is happening and supports it with donations,” he said. And while book sales take a hit on performance nights, those sales are just one aspect of how Bird & Beckett thrives. But once his customers realize patronizing the store means there’s a better chance of it staying in business, “They buy more books than they need and through the non-profit, they donate what seems to me incredible amounts of support: $500, $1000 or $10 on a monthly basis.”
The store rents from a kindly landlord who understands the limitations of a modest independent bookstore. The tight-knit, intelligent neighborhood clientele with a hunger for philosophy and mathematics titles and a thirst for jazz are all part of Whittington’s winning recipe for doing steady business on the City’s southern side.
“Part of it is the neighborhood is so focused. It’s an L-shaped block of businesses. Anyone who comes here to go to the cheese shop or one of the coffee shops or restaurants can see in one fell swoop the bookstore is very prominently a factor,” he said.
The store also publishes a number of volumes by local poets and an annual literary review, Amerarcana, overseen by Whittington’s son Nicholas; he’s also spearheaded the store’s cultural legacy projects documenting elder voices, like David Meltzer and Diane di Prima.
“Three generations, three sets of occupancies by my family, have infused this building,” said Whittington whose six-year-old granddaughter is of course, a book lover. “I’d have to fire her if she wasn’t,” he said.
Whittington used his credit cards to acquire what was the Glen Park Bookstore in 1999. His roots in the Bay Area’s independent film, concert and music production scenes and some bookselling experience helped him to orchestrate his own business. But it was his high school experience as a military kid in Japan which inspired his deep listening to jazz and his own idea for a jazz cafe or kissa, a quiet and respectful listening environment.
“People aren’t chatting,” said Whittington who personally enforces a silence rule during performances. He also oversees all aspects of the evening’s production, from set-up and sound mixing to ringing up books.
“Red Poppy is a listening room. But you’re not going to get quiet at Mr. Tipples or Club Deluxe,” said Whittington of the places that serve up jazz and conversation along with the cocktails that traditionally cover a club’s overhead.
“We need to figure out how to subsidize the artists in this city.” He works with Jazz in the Neighborhood which covers 40 percent of the fee for some performances at the store; other events are paid for by the passing of the hat and other donors. “Providing a few units of housing or studios for artists who’ve lost theirs is a band-aid solution,” he said.
“I was talking to a sax player in France and he explained musicians are considered people with intermittent income and the government provides a subsidy in the gap,” said Whittington of an ideal that would serve our hard-pressed arts communities. He notes a couple of his regulars, Dee Allen and Q.R. Hand, as but two examples of beloved poets who had to leave The City in the wake of the housing crisis.
“The idea is to get the general level of compensation up somehow,” said Whittington who also strives to pay his staff above minimum wage.
“The supervisor Jeff [Sheehy] came in here with Mayor Lee a couple of days before he died,” said Whittington of the late mayor.
“I told them, a commendation for me would be fine but you should probably give a commendation to the landlords, a tax break and few more pats on the back. A little reward gives people incentive to do more.”
In 2018, it was revealed Lee had earmarked funds for 11 bookstores and the money was disbursed. The City and Supervisor Rafael Mandelman also commended Bird & Beckett on 20 years of community service. Whittington did not receive any of the financial assistance (and he didn’t note that, though I am), but his vision extends beyond his bookstore.
“Cities are taking it upon themselves to make the world work. San Francisco did it with the plastic bag ordinance. We’ve been talking about doing something for artists for 10 or 20 years,” he said. “It’s time we did.”
Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” She is a guest columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.